Steele Apologizes for Holocaust Remarks

By Robert Barnes and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 11, 2006

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele profusely apologized yesterday for comments linking stem cell research to Nazi experimentation, but the offhand analogy could undermine what had been a concerted effort by the Republican to run for the U.S. Senate as a moderate "bridge" between Democrats and Republicans in his left-leaning state.

Steele issued apologies in a radio interview and in phone conversations with Jewish leaders in Baltimore and Washington, and then continued to express regret throughout a series of stops in Prince George's County.

"I offended members of the Jewish community and members of the Maryland community," Steele said outside a Prince George's nursing home. "It was a remark that was an improper inference, because I never specifically said Holocaust. . . . And it did not reflect my attitude and my belief, and I am really sorry about the whole thing."

Besides offending those Steele was trying to befriend, some politicians and political observers said his remarks appeared to hurt him in several ways: putting him on the wrong side of a popular issue, reinforcing a worry among even some Republicans that he can be an accident-prone candidate in a high-profile race, and signaling to swing voters that he is more conservative than the almost-nonpartisan image he has cultivated.

"Some people could think he's not moderate . . . but a hard-right Republican," said University of Maryland Prof. Ronald Walters, who has been closely following Steele's campaign.

Keith Haller, who conducts polls for Maryland media and others, said his recent surveys show that Steele has "risen above the cacophony of partisan battles" in the state. "His popularity has been steadily soaring, so he certainly didn't need to engage on this issue, in such an awkward way."

In an appearance Thursday before the Baltimore Jewish Council, Steele responded to a question about stem cell research by saying he was "cautious" about the idea of "tinkering around with life," and added:

"Look, you of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool," Steele said, according to a recording of the event. "I know that as well from my community and our experience with slavery."

Jewish leaders, for the most part, accepted Steele's apology. Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he considered it an exercise of bad judgment by a good man.

"He understands his remarks were offensive," Halber said. "People in the Jewish community are upset about them. What was behind the words were not the feelings of a hatemonger, though."

His Democratic opponents were glad Steele apologized but sharp in their criticism.

"Michael Steele does not have the right to compare the lifesaving potential of stem cell research to the barbarity of the Holocaust," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of several Democrats running to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). "His remarks were offensive to the millions of Americans who stand to benefit [from] this research, as well as to Holocaust survivors and their families."

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